SKYWATCH PROJECT: METEORS
EQUIPMENT REQUIRED: Sleeping bag or warm blankets, ground tarp or deck chair, star map (does not need to be very detailed - the ones handed out in class are sufficient), flashlight (red is best), warm clothing, food and liquid refreshments of your choice.
TIME REQUIRED: One entire night. You can see meteors any night, but try to avoid the lunar phases from first quarter to third quarter when moonlight greatly interferes.
BACKGROUND: Observing shooting stars, or meteors, is one of the oldest and most enjoyable forms of star gazing. No astronomical equipment is required. The only skill required is the ability to stay awake and enthused all night!
WHAT TO DO: The first and foremost requirement for a successful night is a clear and dark sky. That obviously rules out Seattle, so find a field at least 20 miles away from any urban concentration. The area around Carnation, for instance, is quite suitable. Make yourself as comfortable as possible. Sleeping bags, pillows, blankets, and lounge chairs work well. Bringing a friend or friends along can considerably enhance the enjoyment of the night (but keep your eyes and mind mostly on the sky!). Each person should select a different portion of the sky as his or her domain. If the moon or city lights "pollute" a portion of the sky, concentrate your efforts elsewhere.
Observing is simple - after sighting and ogling over a meteor, simply record the time at which it was observed and the position and direction in which it traveled. Learning some constellations will of course aid in recording the location of each meteor. Bring along two or three copies of a star chart. You can then mark the meteor trails directly on them. On an average moonless night, you should see 3 to 10 meteors each hour. Don't get discouraged if you don't see many at the beginning of the night; the rate of meteors is usually lowest early in the night and increases to a peak a couple of hours before dawn. You also will probably spot several artificial earth satellites. These are starlike objects which take only a couple of minutes to move from one horizon to the other. Make a record of them, as well as of any other phenomena of interest such as very bright or colored meteors, clouds obscuring the sky, the aurora, etc.
The next day, make a graph of the number of meteors you observed in each hour of the night. During which hours did you see the most? Can you explain why? If the moon was up during part of the night, did it affect the numbers of meteors which you could observe?
A property of meteors of interest to astronomers is the radiant, a point in the sky from which related meteors sometimes seem to diverge. Did you notice any preferred direction of travel for the meteors you saw? Did they seem to come from the region of any particular constellation? The answers to these questions are not necessarily yes.